Matewan (1987) starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, & David Strathairn

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Director John Sayles at AFI Silver Theater on May 17, 2017.

I’d never seen this movie (part of DC Labor Film Fest this year) before, though I’m a BIG fan of independent director John Sayles. On this blog, you’ll find reviews of Passion Fish and Casa de Los Babys– two of his more female-centered works. In my view, Sayles was a “masculine feminist” even before the term became popular. He writes BOTH male and female characters who are multi-dimensional living inside stories which are realistic.

Now, you may be thinking- HOW does Sayles keep doing his own high-quality, yet rather low-budget projects!? He explained that his day job is “writer for hire”- he worked on movie and TV scripts, many of which didn’t get made by the big Hollywood studios. “In the past 15 years or so, studios seem to want their leads to be like Tony Soprano,” Sayles explained in the Q&A session after the film. (Most of the audience laughed at this part.) 

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Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper) addresses the miners.

Matewan is based on true events which occurred in a rural town in 1920s West Virginia. Some of the character names are real; others are amalgams of several people. When I first saw the trailer for the film two weeks ago, it reminded me of the Western genre (which Sayles was inspired by). The cinematographer here was Hollywood veteran Haskell Wexler (d. 2015); he won two Oscars, one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and the other for Days of Heaven (1978)- considered one of the MOST beautiful films by critics and fans alike. The music is also a crucial element here; there is a blending of different styles.

A stranger- Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper in his first film role)- arrives in the town of Matewan. (Cooper plays the lead in Sayles’ Lone Star, which also stars a young Matthew McConaughey.) He gets a room at a boarding house run by a widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell- lead in Passion Fish), and her teenage son Danny (Will Oldham, then just 17 y.o.) Danny recently went to work in the mines, though he’s NOT yet 15 y.o. His real passion is preaching. 

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Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) is a representative/leader of the black miners.

Joe meets w/ (white/native born) coal miners at the local restaurant. These workers, struggling to form a union, are up against the Stone Mountain Coal Company operators and thugs from the Baldwin-Felts agency (basically guns for hire). Black and newly-arrived Italian immigrants, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught in the middle. A tall, burly black miner- nicknamed Few Clothes (James Earl Jones)- boldly comes to this meeting. He’s an advocate for the African-American men brought in to work recently from further South. The local white miners don’t want to include the black men (or Italians) in the union; they consider these two groups to be a threat to their livelihood. (Well, some things NEVER change! And yeah, Italians were NOT considered “white” at this time in American history.)  

You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddamn club! They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy. -Joe explains to the white miners

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Police chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) readies his pistol in his office.

I’ve met Mr. Felts. I wouldn’t pee on him if his heart was on fire. -Sid Hatfield tells the men from the Baldwin-Felts agency

This film contains some colorful characters, including stone-faced cop Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn). Kevin Tighe (a veteran of film and TV) and Gordon Clapp (who later made a name on NYPD Blue) play the main villains. Sayles is in the small role of a fiery, anti-union Baptist preacher. Producer Maggie Renzi (herself of Italian heritage) takes on the role of Rosaria, wife to one of the Italian miners and mother to several kids. Sayles and Renzi have been creative and life partners since their days as students at Williams College. Sayles also met Strathairn at Williams; they’re good friends. Local people (NOT professional actors) were used in MANY of the scenes of Matewan; they give authenticity to the film, as does the setting.

I think ALL the actors did a fine job; I esp. liked the characters played by Jones (what a great get for young filmmakers) and Renzi (who spoke in Italian). Cooper was the first actor who auditioned for the role of Joe; he had ONLY done theater before. Sayles revealed that several well-known actors also went in for the part, BUT he and Renzi kept thinking back to Cooper. As for Jones, they wanted someone like him, b/c they thought there was a small chance of the man behind Darth Vader taking on a supporting role. Well, you NEVER know until you try!

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